With kids facing daily temptations of processed snacks and electronic devices, many parents and schools find it hard to get the message out about nutrition and fitness.
Schools have a particular opportunity to educate students and parents, and within schools, many PTOs are finding ways to make healthy living both manageable and fun. They’ve looked beyond traditional teaching of nutrition and fitness to host interactive events that don’t exhaust their volunteer base or their budget.
Walking the World
When students are motivated, they can put a surprising amount of effort into fitness programs. The Mileage Club Wall of Fame at Alaiedon Elementary in Mason, Mich., gets students excited about walking or running laps on the school track. During last spring’s seven-week Mileage Club, the PTO created a number line to depict how many miles the students walked or ran. Kids could track their progress as a group and watch as they “progressed” to Nashville, Disneyland, Paris, and even Saudi Arabia.
The club started as a way to encourage kids to get moving at recess during the spring months, when many students start getting antsy. The PTO connected with a hospital and health care network in Lansing, which handles the free registration, tracks mileage, contributes incentive tokens, and provides a water bottle to participants at 20 miles.
But the Alaiedon PTO decided to take it up a notch, hoping to get more kids excited and increase participation. Students were given small prizes every time they completed 5 miles (a pencil, stickers, a rubber duck) and received a paper “shoe” to post on the Mileage Club Wall of Fame. Students walked to the cheers of teachers, parents, and administrators. Kids with the top mileage enjoyed a special pizza lunch with the school’s gym teacher, a favorite among students.
The little steps made a huge a difference: 380 out of 465 students enrolled in the program, and the mileage increased from 4,000 miles the previous year to 6,000.
“Not only did the participation go up, so did the excitement level,” says PTO Mileage Club coordinator Debbie Hatton. “Having that individual recognition and the prizes really increased the participation. And they loved having parents and teachers come out and walk with them!”
In addition to cheering students on, parents came in to punch mileage cards as each student completed a lap. Sometimes they blew bubbles with a bubble gun or handed out bonus stickers to the kids.
Learning About Healthier Living
When the Owens Primary School PTA in Bakersfield, Calif., surveyed parents asking what type of events they would like to see, the results overwhelmingly came back in favor of health and exercise classes. So the PTA reached out to a health program run through the Kern County Department of Human Services. Together they came up with some healthy eating and active lifestyle events for parents.
A series of nutrition classes focused on the importance of healthy foods, cooking tips, and ways to ensure a balanced meal. One class featured a contest to see who could make the best salad and salsa using healthy ingredients.
“So many times you think something is healthy and it’s not,” says Janet Jimenez, treasurer of the Owens PTA and a coordinator of the program. “We really learned how to read labels and understand portions.”
The PTA also hosted a walking group with pedometers provided by the county program and the PTA. On Monday mornings, mothers, fathers, grandparents, and kids in strollers socialized as they walked around the school’s track. “The area we live in isn’t great for walking,” Jimenez explains. “This was perfect because they could come in when no one was out, the kids were all in class, and they could just walk the track. They all loved doing it.”
With the pedometers, families learned to count their steps, which were tracked by the PTA. They stretched afterward and also learned yoga poses for relaxation and a few dance moves.
Working on Family Fitness
The East Salem Elementary PTA in Salem, Va., knew that to get kids interested in eating healthy and staying active, they had to make it fun. So in April 2016 they hosted a Family Fitness Night, an evening where parents, students, and siblings could learn about health and fitness while having a good time.
The PTA set up nine stations featuring activities such as making a healthy snack, planting vegetable seeds to take home, and playing food plate trivia. Students rotated through stations with scorecards, which they turned in for a goody bag full of coupons, recipes, and tips for incorporating nutrition and fitness into everyday life.
The kids had the most fun with the physical fitness contest. Students were challenged to see how many consecutive sit-ups they could do and how long they could hold a plank. Winners were crowned at the end of the evening and received prize packs based on grade level. “We had kids who kept coming back to check the board, and if they saw that someone was beating them, they would try again,” says PTA president Emily Horne.
The event was so successful that they plan to hold it again, but at a different time of year so that it won’t compete with spring sports.
“Everyone talks about fitness and how important it is,” Horne says. “But until you introduce it to the kids and show them how to do it, and get the parents on board, they don’t always know how easy and fun it can be.”
Encouraging Healthier Choices
Health and fitness are so important to the PTA at Frostwood Elementary in Houston, Texas, that it has an entire committee working all year to promote healthy living to students.
One of the biggest hits has been the weekly salad bar at lunch, which the PTA funds and staffs. Students can customize their entrée-size salads with a variety of toppings. “The response has been overwhelming,” says PTA president Jill Kolb. “Every week, certain kids always come back. And the parents think it’s a great way to volunteer and see their kids in a regular environment.”
The PTA also sponsors a vegetable garden and fruit orchard on school property. An outside group plants and maintains them, and also gives lessons to students about gardening and nutrition. Kids sample the foods they harvest, including herbs.
Students in 4th and 5th grades can join the Kids Student Health Advisory Council, a healthy lifestyle club. Participants staff a booth at the school carnival, which features a fitness challenge, and give healthy tips during school announcements. Their video about stress-relieving activities was a huge hit with their classmates.
Frostwood’s annual Wellness Week focuses on encouraging kids to try new foods and activities. The organizers hold tastings where students can try out different varieties of foods, such as smoothies, oranges, or kale. Parents are invited to come in and work out with the children; the activities vary each year and have included yoga, Zumba, and walking or running on the track.
Health and fitness challenges, such as running clubs and walk/bike/scooter to school days, are held throughout the year by joint committee efforts or teacher sponsors.
“Our parents tend to be very healthy and conscious about what their kids are eating,” Kolb says. “We really wanted to supplement that in the schools and make sure that everyone was getting the message about eating healthy and being active.”
4 More Ways To Promote Healthy Living
Host a health and fitness vendor fair.
Offer student cooking classes.
Plan a family hike or walking tour.
Organize a parents night out at a cooking school.
Originally posted in 2017 and updated regularly.